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According to campaign finance attorneys, the laws that forbid foreign nationals from spending funds in order to influence U.S. elections do not disallow them from legally purchasing some types of political ads on Facebook and other online networks. Lawyers also think that the omission of online ads could pose a possible challenge for those involved in the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the U.S. Presidential election of 2016.

Since 1974, the United States has forbidden foreign nationals from donating funds to campaigns, and it subsequently barred them from making contributions to political parties. Additionally, the laws forbid foreign nationals from coordinating with a campaign and from purchasing an ad that clearly supports the election or defeat of a candidate.

The laws at issue are those that concern a group of ads called “electioneering communications” that focus on the position of a candidate on an issue, that disseminate news stories about a candidate or that attack a candidate without directly supporting their defeat.

Foreign nationals are prohibited from expending funds on electioneering communications. However, the term applies only to communications made via broadcast, cable or satellite. It says nothing about the use of the internet.

New York criminal defense attorney, Peter Brill, of the Brill Legal Group, states, “These laws were passed before there was an internet as we know, let alone Facebook and its ilk.” “The law and our lawmakers must evolve to meet the challenges of a much more connected epoch, though the likelihood of any real progress amidst our partisan gridlock is slim.”

There is a relevant law that bars foreign nationals from supporting the election or defeat of a candidate in any advertising medium. However, according to Jan Baran, a Washington attorney who often represents Republican candidates, they are not forbidden as a campaign finance matter as long as they do not direct people to vote for a certain candidate.

Ann Ravel, who was formerly a Democratic appointee to the U.S. Federal Election Commission, said that the lack of regulations concerning online advertising seems to make it impossible to discover exactly who is responsible for these ads, conduct an investigation or impose penalties for that behavior.

In May of this year, U.S. Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to conduct an investigation into the alleged Russian intervention and possible conspiracy between Moscow and associates of President Donald Trump. The Russian government claims it did not interfere in the election, and Trump has denied any conspiracy.

Potential use of Facebook to sway election
Nevertheless, an official at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) seems to be calling for an investigation into whether Russian agents used Facebook to change the course of the U.S. Election. FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said she is urging the FEC to conduct an investigation into whether Russia financed Facebook ads to distribute negative accounts about Hillary Clinton during the campaign. She said that such Facebook ads would fall within the purview of FEC regulation because it has jurisdiction over any funds that are spent on advertising. Brad Pascale, the digital director of Trump’s election campaign, informed Reuters that the campaign spent about $70 million on very focused Facebook ads last year.

Facebook, which has emerged as an important platform for online political ads, has indicated that it has not discovered any proof that Russian agents were purchasing ads. However, in April, Facebook said it has become an arena for governments wishing to shape public opinion in other nations, and established new procedures to contend with such “information operations.”

Conclusion of U.S. intelligence community
In a declassified report, the U.S. intelligence community determined that Russian President Vladimir Putin commanded that an “influence campaign” be directed at harming Hillary Clinton and assisting Donald Trump in his attempt to win the election.

The campaign involved hacking groups and individuals, including the chairman of Clinton’s campaign, John Podesta. It also included the issue of such information by way of third-party websites, such as WikiLeaks. The report further stated that the objectives of Russia were to weaken public loyalty in the democratic process, belittle Secretary Clinton, and sabotage her ability to be elected and become president.

About Author

Roxanne Minott is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and legal content writer for Custom Legal Marketing.

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